Malawi deploys soldiers to stop maize exports

By Penelope Paliani-Kamanga

Malawi President Peter Mutharika last week ordered the country’s soldiers to guard the four major border posts against maize smugglers following confiscation of 30 trucks of maize at a border in the north in Chitipa.

According to sources, the maize apparently was destined for Tanzania and some en­-route to other unnamed Southern African countries which have been hit by maize shortages.

In a statement, presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalilani stated that on the borders to be manned are Mwami in Mchinji which is the border with Zambia, Mwanza  and Dedza which borders Mozambique, Mbilima in Chitipa, and Songwe in Karonga which borders with Tanzania.

The president urged the people around the mentioned borders not to panic due to  the presence of the heavily armed soldiers.

The deployment of soldiers at Malawi’s borders and the confiscation of maize at the Chitipa border came at a time there was debate in Malawi on whether or not traders should sell the maize locally at lower price or sell it to the other Southern Africa countries which have been hit by shortages and higher prices.

The government argued that exporting maize would lead to shortages in Malawi while traders insisted the prices of maize would be low and they would not make any profit.

The country’s maize production is expected to rise in 2017 to 3.2 million tonnes despite the crop being inflicted by the fall armyworm, an alien South American pest that invaded maize fields in most Southern African countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe.

The increase in the production of maize was obviously going to overturn the expectations of the traders who had anticipated a shortage of maize, a move that would have enabled them to sell the maize at a higher price locally.

Currently the maize is being sold at K10, 000 (US$13) per 50kg bag in most areas and even as low as US$8 in the rural areas yet the traders had anticipated that they would sell at K 20,000 (US$26).

The reduction came amid controversy over Zambia maize-gate scandal involving some top officials in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and grain marketing board, Admarc, officials.  It also took place when Admarc was still selling maize at MK12, 500 per 50kg bag.

Fred Chisosa, a maize trader from Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial city, said in interview that there was a possibility that there would be a lot of maize on the market and following the law of supply and demand it was likely that the prices would be low.

“We are bound to lose out in the end if we sell the maize at a cheaper price because we purchased the maize on a higher side,” he said.

Because maize is the undisputed staple food crop of the SADC region, utterly crucial for so many people’s livelihoods and survival, its availability is a highly politicised commodity. The deployment of soldiers by the Malawi government has been one of the reactions to looming food crises.

Chisosa argued that this, however, could create a vast insecurity for everyone, as private traders would be tempted to either hoard the maize or export because they were unaware of what prices would be in future. Government, he said, in turn punished traders for price gauging or smuggling which justified its intervention in the market.

“Sadly this generates a vicious cycle.  Government interference can lead to less competitive markets which in turn can create an even higher risk of price gauging,” said Chisosa.

Erica Maganga, secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Reuters recently that “A combination of too much rains and the successful pesticide distribution to farmers have helped us to stop the armyworm invasion”.

Malawi’s maize crop was devastated last year by a regional drought triggered by the El Nino weather pattern. About 6.5 million Malawians, more than a third of the population, are dependent on food aid until this year’s harvest in March, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

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